In celebration of International Friendship Day on 30 July, we speak to Belinda and Leon on their long-lasting friendship and how they made it work through the years
She's an actress, World Vision Ambassador and television host who's been the face of inspiring programmes like Find Me A Singaporean and Renovaid. He's an actor and singer who's made it big in Taiwan and China, appearing in dramas like Green Forest and My Home. Although they seem worlds apart, Belinda Lee and Leon Jay Williams have actually been best friends from the start.
Find out how they met, their take on guy-girl friendships and how they remain strong friends today:
You've known each other for 23 years. Can you recall the first time you met?
Belinda: We were 18 years old and it was at a fashion show during the Christmas season. He was a model while I was just an angel mascot. I remember squatting by the wall looking at all these beautiful people walking past me. He was the only one who looked down and saw me.
Leon: I was like why is this girl blocking the way? (both laugh) We started talking at the show and ended up keeping in touch for 23 years.
How would you describe your friendship?
Leon: Deep, like family.
Belinda: Yes, he's not just my BFF, he is family. Imagine, I wasn't even in the entertainment industry when we met. I certainly did not expect him to become so famous in China! (laughs) And I certainly didn't expect myself to be an entertainer.
Leon: Well, I'm not surprised with where she is today. It's nice to have someone who's been there and seen you from the start, before all this madness happened. We were teenagers then, so we've been there for each other through many milestones.
Belinda: Especially when it comes to big life decisions, it's vital to go to somebody who really knows you right from the beginning because they know you from before you had popularity and everything. They know you from deep down, the fundamentals of your character.
So you help ground each other?
Leon: Definitely, we keep each other grounded and rooted.
Belinda: Every step of the way. For example, if I need advice or when I lose steam, he would tell me things like "You remember when we were young? This is what you've always wanted" or "Do you still remember your passion? What's stopping you from pursuing it now?"
Leon: Especially since we're in the entertainment industry, which is really unforgiving. To have someone who knows you from before - not just Belinda Lee the host, the actress, or Leon, the overseas actor…
Belinda: When you have self-doubt, go to that person who's known you from the beginning, and that's where you'll get assurance.
How do you make a guy-girl friendship work?
Leon: It depends on every individual. And being in our industry, where it's always about being surrounded by beauty, I've come to a point where I can see beyond that. So I'm not like "Oh she's just another pretty girl". Our dynamics work and we don't want to ruin the friendship.
Belinda: Yes, I'm so happy we've stayed as friends, because if we had got into a relationship I think we would probably hate each other and would not be able to be friends now. I value the friendship more than anything else. Exes come and go but a best friend - regardless of whether it's a man or woman - is here to stay. I would do anything to be there for Leon and protect him and his family to my best ability.
Has your friendship ever been tested?
Leon: We agree to disagree. That's the whole point of being friends, you don't force your opinion on others, and you have to be open.
Belinda: It's about having a very deep understanding for each other. We didn't build our friendship on this industry, that's why we're able to last.
Leon: We know each other's families, exes, everything, and the entertainment part is just a portion of it. There was a period of time when we didn't speak for years when I started going away to China, and back then there was no such thing as social media and you could make phone calls but that's about it.
Belinda: Yeah, we lost touch for years but in my heart I knew this is a friend I truly want to stay connected with for as long as I can. I heard he was doing well in Taiwan, and I somehow managed to get his number when I was in Taipei. But on the day I called him, he was flying to Kaohsiung and we missed each other.
Leon: I was so glad you called. When I went to Taiwan in 2004, everything was just overwhelming. Being an actor in a foreign country, I pretty much lost touch with everyone I knew. So when she called me, it hit me that I was neglecting friends and family.
Belinda: When he came back to Singapore, we went for a kopi session and it was like nothing had changed.
How are you inspired by each other?
Leon: I'm always very inspired by the jobs Bel undertakes. She does a lot of charity and church stuff, and it's all based on empathy. Over in China and Taiwan, where the market is so big and unforgiving, you can become very businesslike to the point where you forget why you're in the business, the passion for acting, giving back to society and all that. So every time I see what she's done, it's a reminder for me to do something as well. Because of her, I started doing more charity stuff in Taiwan and China - for example, visiting schools in the mountains in China and giving to charitable organisations. But Bel does things like that on a weekly basis; she goes the extra mile.
Belinda: I think it's in my character and my heart to go the extra mile for anyone in need. My heart has always been soft, so I often get taken advantage of. That's when I'd call Leon and say I got bullied and ask for his advice. If I'm the heart, he's the brain. He would teach me very practical steps to try and rise above these circumstances and be more logical minded, whether it's making a work or personal decision. And he advises me in such a different way because he truly knows me.
The key to a successful friendship is…
Leon: Time and effort.
Belinda: Love and understanding. We both have our priorities and commitments, so we don't expect each other to be there 24/7. We just learn to understand, and that'll keep the friendship going for as long as possible.
This article was first published on The Singapore Women's Weekly